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Bill Bowerman came to the University of Oregon as track coach in 1948—preeminently the right man in the right position. His background included a boyhood in Fossil, a small central Oregon town with the remarkably stable population of 528 ("Every time a baby is born, a man leaves town," says Bowerman). At Medford High School he played in the band and edited the school paper besides lettering in football and basketball. Bowerman took his degree in business and premed from Oregon in 1934 after giving up on journalism. "I never could feel I was learning anything from those people," he says.
He quarterbacked the Oregon football team for two seasons in the days when a quarterback was a team's most vicious blocker, and in 1931 led the Ducks to a 14-6 upset of NYU which ruined the Violets' national championship hopes.
Bowerman returned to Medford in 1935 as football and track coach. His football teams had a 64-8-3 record, won three state championships and he was invited to apply for the head coaching job at Oregon but declined. "Track men have a higher general level of intelligence than football players and the competition in an individual sport is much keener," he says. "A lot of football players can't tolerate being all alone out there with nobody to hide behind." Bowerman emerged from World War II a major in the 10th Mountain Division ("We made the world safe for Communism"), and when Oregon offered him the job as track coach, he went. Bill and his wife Barbara, a comely, awesomely energetic woman, have three sons: John, an Alpine ski instructor; Jay, a biology teacher and member of the U.S. biathlon team in the last two Winter Olympics; and Tom, an urban planner.
It is tiresome and by far the lesser story to recount the records of Bowerman's tenure at Oregon: four NCAA team championships, 33 individual NCAA and AAU titles, 11 U.S. Olympic team members, 10 sub-four-minute milers. "No man has contributed as much to track and field in the U.S. as Bowerman," says Indiana (and ex- Oregon State) Coach Sam Bell. The accomplishments, however, cannot be appreciated apart from Bowerman's character.
Few men are embodiments of a philosophy. Rather, they are constructed piecemeal—a principle here, a judgment there—and if subjected to scrutiny, the parts don't mesh. In Bowerman paradoxes seem to abound. He often illustrates his points by quoting Scripture, but may be so earthy in conversation that Bouncy Moore, his 1971 NCAA long-jump champion, calls him "that obscene man." He is devoted to winning, yet brands recruiting "immoral." He despairs of the creep toward the welfare state ("You hand-feed a wild duck, pretty soon it can't fend for itself anymore"), but urges his athletes to apply for food stamps. His gruff, countrified manner ("You run like a turkey in a plowed field") belies an extensive, often arcane, knowledge of history and the classics.
Yet any assessment of Bowerman that has opposing values constantly at war is superficial and ultimately incorrect. One encompassing fact sweeps away the contradictions: Bowerman, perpetually and compulsively, is a teacher. His choice of the sacred or the profane depends upon which will be more effective in prying open minds. He justifies the food stamps with the worth of his pupils' efforts. "These men are holding down two jobs as it is," he says. "Studying and running."
He despises recruiting because anyone can be taught ("and those who don't expect a handout most easily of all") and because young men ought to select their colleges primarily on the basis of academic offerings. In 1962 the best high school miler in the country, Dave Deubner, attended crosstown North Eugene. A National Merit scholar who had worked on a Scripps Institute of Oceanography research ship, Deubner wanted to study geology, which he could do best at a California school, but he also warned to train under Bowerman. He explained his dilemma, and Bowerman told him flatly, "You can't run forever. Consider your education first." Deubner went to Stanford. To Rick Rojas, a 4:11-miler for Los Alamos (N. Mex.) High who had been offered a full scholarship to Harvard, Bowerman said, "You'd be crazy to come to Oregon."
Bowerman's methods are grounded in a belief that "You cannot just tell somebody what's good for him, because he won't listen. First you have to get his attention." His sharpest attention-getter is kicking people off his team. A survey of Oregon's recent Olympians reveals that a significant percentage at one time or another found their names painted out above their locker-room stalls. But the boot, being a teaching aid, is practically never permanent.
There are other means of instruction. Wade Bell, a 1968 Olympic half-miler, tells a tale of horror: "I never used to shave the day of a race. Bill always made remarks, but I didn't take him seriously. The morning of the 1967 NCAA finals I woke up being carried down the hall of the dormitory by our shotputters. They took me in the lavatory, and there was Bowerman with a fiendish grin, a cup of lather and a rusty old straight razor. He got that blade right under my nose before I convinced him I'd do it myself." Smooth-cheeked, Bell won the 880.
Bowerman has no explicit training rules, preferring to depend upon the common sense of dedicated athletes. "People are taught more by the vicissitudes of life than by arbitrary rules," he says, but occasionally he will give the vicissitudes a shove. During a spring vacation training camp at a California air base it came to Bowerman's attention that one of his quarter-milers was returning from nearby San Francisco at dawn. When the miscreant had had just enough time to undress and go to bed, Bowerman burst in and rolled him out for a bracing, early-morning jog, remarking, as they ran, on the beauty of Marin County. A series of errands kept the runner from sleeping after breakfast. Then, during the midday workout, Bowerman put him through endless 220s while his teammates, long since finished with their training, watched in silence. Yet after dinner he caught the bus back to the city and again returned in the wee hours. Piqued, Bowerman dismissed him from the team, but upon further reflection reversed himself. "The man was simply one hell of a competitor," Bowerman says. "Trouble was, he was competing against me."